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On June 13 NASA’s official tally of exoplanets—planets beyond our solar system—shot past 4,000. The master list includes alien worlds around both tiny neutron stars and swollen, dying suns, planets in the crowded center of our galaxy the Milky Way, and planets floating alone in the depths of interstellar space. One location is conspicuously missing, however: Alpha Centauri, the star system next door to our own. Because of a confounding set of circumstances, this intriguing target has remained a cipher—at least, until now.

Technology is improving, and the stars are aligning, literally, to betray Alpha Centauri’s secrets. “The level of interest in finding [potentially habitable worlds] is definitely increasing,” says astrophysicist Ruslan Belikov of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Over the past few weeks, Belikov’s team and another group led by Markus Kasper of the European Southern Observatory have been trying to glimpse Alpha Centauri’s putative worlds with the help of two different giant telescopes in Chile. Using new high-precision starlight-sifting instruments, researchers are gearing up for even more subtle searches there. If those efforts come up empty, several groups are developing low-cost satellites to extend the planet hunt into space. And if NASA fails to fund those projects, there is another backup plan: two private efforts—the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Initiatives and the crowdfunded Project Blue—are gearing up to make the missions happen anyway.

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Category: Science